Applying for undergrad was definitely an experience, but applying for graduate programs is a whole other story. The grad school search is seriously strenuous, yet the very first question friends, family, and faculty will ask you is where you will be applying. (It was the number one question I received whenever I mentioned grad school applications!) I also found that it was the hardest question to answer. The question always sounded so casual: “So, where are you applying?” …As if I’d had one specific place in mind! My first thought was always “How do I find the right one?” There are many schools that offer incredible graduate programs. Deciding what programs to apply to takes time and some pretty extensive research.
Choosing the grad programs you want to apply for is so much more than simply picking them out of a hat (even though it may certainly seem like that’s what you’re doing sometimes!). Researching, selecting, and applying to your top schools can be a complex process, but it can be made much easier by narrowing down your options. The whole “narrowing down your options” deal can seem exhausting, too. But, if you ask yourself what you’re truly looking for, things can get easier. Here are five simple questions to ask yourself will help to guide you in discovering your ideal grad school program.
what are your career interests?
Before you start looking into programs, get clear on your career interests. Unlike undergrad where you take a variety of classes (both related to, and unrelated to your major), many graduate programs are heavily focused on research or studying a niche topic within your industry. So if you have specific interests within your field, find out whether a program offers related courses or applied experiences that will help advance your career. Knowing this information can easily help you narrow down your search.
During my grad school search, for example, I kept my niche interests in mind as I scrolled through each program’s site. By searching with my specific interests in mind, I was able to quickly skim through research projects a program completed. This allowed me to easily discover whether any of the school’s researchers had similar interests as me, simply by skimming through their “Research” page. Whenever I saw either of my interests listed as the same interests of a certain professor, I would click on their bio to learn more about their research.
Researching faculty members also helped to narrow your interests down. I was able to form an opinion about the school fairly easily. I presumed the researchers would likely be the professors I would be learning from when I would attend the program. Because you’ll likely be learning from these professors, it’s important to find a school that researches topics you’re interested in.
where do you want to study & work?
Often, this can be a great question to help you narrow down your search. Can you see yourself living away from home for the next two (or more) years? If not, you might narrow your search to find schools within a drivable radius of your hometown. While the U.S. does have hundreds of incredible grad programs, not all areas have large numbers of programs within a proximal driving distance. It’s also important to keep in mind that there are thousands of people applying for grad school at any given time, and narrowing your options too much can decrease chances of acceptance for first-time applicants.
If you are planning on actually living at home while you complete your program, you can narrow your search to schools within roughly an hour of where you live. However, there may not be many, if any, programs quite that close to your hometown. If there aren’t any schools within driving distance, another option you have is to look into online programs.
Are you interested in studying abroad?
Many of us are thrill-seekers and explorers. You may be interested in going somewhere farther away from the comfort of your hometown, home state, or even working in another country! If this description fits you, you will likely be looking for a school that both suits your interests, and is located somewhere off your parents’ ideal map of potential graduate schools (sorry, Mom!).
Even though you may be down to go just about anywhere, you likely have specific opinions on what exactly “going somewhere adventurous” means to you. Is it somewhere warm and sunny? How about a busy city? Maybe it’s somewhere near snowy mountains. Regardless, you likely have somewhat of an idea of a climate or setting in which you’d like to spend the next two years of your life. However, if you’re not so sure, there are plenty of ways to seek out the programs in your ideal location.
How much will it cost, & do you need financial aid?
Applying for financial aid is a necessity for many students, especially in grad school when the tuition bill is high. A big downfall of some programs is that they simply don’t offer it, and some only offer specific forms of financial aid and scholarships. For example, some programs offer short-term teaching assistantships and research assistantships, and others offer merit-based scholarships, or scholarships directly related to your field of study. If you’re seeking scholarships, it is important to find out what scholarships your department offers and whether or not you’re eligible. Not all departments offer scholarships to first-year graduate students who didn’t come from their undergraduate program. Keep in mind that in grad school, scholarship opportunities sometimes become available after your program has started; after all, the school may want to get to know you as a student before dishing out the cash!
Finding out what your future graduate schools offer can be a helpful way to narrow down program options. If two programs are comparable in reputation but one will cost a fortune and there are no scholarships available, you’ll have a way of deciding what’s worth it to apply to — and what’s not!
When I was applying, I had no idea where to even start in my search for a concise list of schools! I asked myself these questions to help me seriously narrow down my search. I first looked into rankings, location, and whether or not my interests were shared with the faculty. Finally, I looked into the financial aid offered at each school. Asking myself these questions proved to be the most efficient way to compose my list of schools and ultimately find the right grad school for me!